Community at odds over synagogue
For two decades, Dee Tuntkavep has enjoyed a view of pine-shrouded Chandler Boulevard from the upstairs reading room of her Sherman Oaks home.
Now all she sees are concrete walls two stories high -- the still-in-progress expansion of an Orthodox Jewish house of worship. In fact, plans for the upgraded Chabad of North Hollywood are for a structure nearly nine times the size of the prayer house it replaces.
On its website, the Chabad gives thanks: “Divine Providence has finally shined down on this long-awaited project.”
Litigation, however, has brought the project to a virtual halt.
Tuntkavep and dozens of other residents say the new building’s size -- 12,000 square feet squeezed onto a 9,568-square-foot parcel zoned for residential -- is just too big for the surrounding blocks of single-family homes, some starting at more than $1 million.
“It’s like a mountain,” Tuntkavep said. “How did this happen?”
That question has been the focus of a four-year battle pitting neighbor against neighbor, even Jew against Jew, in this quiet pocket in the San Fernando Valley.
Chabad of North Hollywood, which has operated a small synagogue in this location since 1981, says the larger structure is needed for a growing congregation: Up to 400 attend services during Passover and other holidays.
Benjamin Reznik, the Chabad’s attorney, expects things to get back on track after an appellate court ruling last August.
“Really all the court said was that the City Council needed to make some better findings in support of its decision to allow this building,” he said. “And the city can easily make those findings.”
Residents, though, have vowed to keep fighting.
And although Reznik said Rabbi Aharon Abend, the Chabad’s spiritual leader as well as the parcel’s developer, is under no court order to stop building, neighbors say work at the site has slowed.
Situated in the upscale Chandler Estates, the Chabad first sought permission five years ago to build a 16,100-square-foot, 45-foot-high synagogue. It also asked for a parking variance for just five spaces instead of the 83 that would have been required, citing the fact that worshipers walk to services on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.
A city planning administrator said yes to a 10,300-square-foot facility but restricted its hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Both sides appealed. City planning commissioners again said the structure was too large. Within days, then-City Councilman Jack Weiss invoked a seldom-used section of the city’s charter to take control of the project. He succeeded in winning the council’s approval for the current structure.
Reached by phone, Weiss declined to comment.
But opponents sued, saying the council improperly bypassed the usual vetting process and ignored voter-approved charter reforms intended to bring planning decisions closer to affected communities. Last August, an appellate court agreed and ruled that the council “abused its discretion.”
The project now is expected to go before a land-use subcommittee before returning to the full council later this month.
Council members then will be faced with an awkward decision: Do they order that the building, now about half-completed, be torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale? Or do they simply insert “findings” to justify their earlier approval?
Abend refused repeated attempts to reach him by phone and became combative in deflecting questions outside the synagogue on a recent Saturday. But Reznik, a prominent land-use attorney, made clear that the rabbi wants it settled.
“The congregants walk, there is no driving and there is no impact on the community,” Reznik said.
Resident Jeff Gantman disagrees.
“This really sets a precedent,” said Gantman, who is quick to point out that he is Jewish and the grandson of Max Gantman, a benefactor of the Shaarei Tefila temple in the Fairfax district. “The character of the neighborhood is really affected.
“If the city doesn’t follow the law on this, no neighborhood would be immune from this type of abuse.”
Councilman Paul Koretz, who inherited the dispute from Weiss, called it a “mess” that should have been handled differently. At this point, the best Koretz can do is allow neighbors to air their grievances -- something that didn’t happen the first time around, said Shawn Bayliss, a deputy for the councilman.
The dispute is only the latest to flare between Orthodox Jewish communities and neighbors who view such large synagogues in residential areas as a violation of zoning laws.
A case in point is the recent 10-year battle over construction of an 8,000-square-foot synagogue at Highland Avenue and 3rd Street in Hancock Park.
Neighbors there were opposed on grounds similar to the Sherman Oaks case. When the city refused to issue permits to the Hancock Park congregation, a federal lawsuit was filed invoking the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is designed to prevent religious discrimination in local zoning.
In the end, the city three years ago granted Congregation Etz Chaim conditional use permits.
Attorney Mike Wright, who represented the Hancock Park homeowners at one point, says the issue is not going away any time soon.
“It’s happening all over Los Angeles and the nation,” he said. “The religious groups are pretty determined and the homeowners are definitely affected.”
Rabbi Chaim Rubin, Etz Chaim’s leader, suspects that anti-Semitism underlies the complaints.
“Frankly, I don’t want to be told by anyone anymore to get out. Anywhere,” he said.
But Ron Ziff, who has lived in the Chandler neighborhood for three decades and has given time and money to Chabad of North Hollywood, is adamant that the issue is size and nothing else.
“It’s just too big,” he said.
Gantman admits he doesn’t relish the thought of this dragging through the courts the way the Hancock Park case did, but he is determined.
“They will undo what they have done to this neighborhood,” he said. “If that takes six more years, so be it.”
Reznik, the Chabad’s attorney, is sure that won’t happen.
“The reality is this is a neighborhood-serving facility,” he said, “and they know it.”